Monday, February 29, 2016

On the Closing of the Jungle in Calais

I write about today's move to dismantle the Calais Jungle in Foreign Policy.

Labor Law Reform Postponed

The fronde on the left, which has grown to the size of a rebellion if not a revolution with the announcement that confederates of Martine Aubry will quit the PS leadership, has finally borne fruit with the announcement today that presentation of the El Khomri Law to the Council of Ministers, scheduled for Wednesday, will be postponed for at least two weeks. The necessary "corrections" will be made, says Prime Minister Valls. His statement also spoke of "misapprehensions" and "misinformation" about the content of the law, so it wasn't immediately clear if he intends to modify the terms of the reform or simply explain loudly and slowly to the less alert pupils in the party, who haven't yet grasped the fact that the government has concluded that further progress on the demand side of things is impossible (Michel Sapin made this clear at last weekend's G20 meetings) and the only way forward is on the supply side with enhanced "flexibility."

Michel Sapin, French finance minister, said a co-ordinated boost to demand was a long way off.
“We are absolutely not talking about a global fiscal stimulus package,” he said. “We’re not there at all. In France we don’t have the means to do this just yet. Other countries have more capacity and they can use this capacity to continue to support global growth.”

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Birnbaum-Nora Dialogue on French Judaism

This is an interesting discussion between two French Jews of different sensibilities on the state of mind of French Jews at this moment in history.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Perfidious Albion Digression

Even the confirmed Francocentric must occasionally glance across the channel. I hereby offer a few thoughts on Brexit, with thanks to William Shakespeare.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Has Martine Aubry Thrown Her Hat in the Ring?

Today's stinging rebuke to the recent turn in the Hollande-Valls approach to governing features the name Martine Aubry in its headline, Among her fellow signatories are several of the people associated with the "primary of all the left" petition launched a couple of weeks ago. Tomorrow, the petitioners will hold a rally in Lille, and Aubry herself is scheduled to put in an appearance (although it is not clear that she will speak). Is she inching toward a candidacy? Sending a signal to Hollande? Attempting to pre-empt possible competitors on the left flank (such as Arnaud Montebourg, whose candidacy is already under way)?

A supporter of Montebourg (and backer of Aubry in 2012) assured me last week that Aubry had decided not to run. If she does run, the calculations of potential Montebourg supporters may change. Aubry would be an altogether more serious challenger than Montebourg, in my estimation. But does she really want to go for it? That remains the question, but it looks as though she may be preparing to get off the fence.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Labor Code Reform

Labor minister Myriam El Khomri will present a preliminary draft of a labor code reform bill to the Council of Ministers on March 9. This is touted as "the last major reform" of Hollande's presidency. Since the previous major reforms have had little evident effect on the economy, this one will have its work cut out for it if the results are to benefit the current president rather than his replacement. Yet by its very nature, reform of the labor code, even if well conceived, is unlikely to produce results in the short term. Hence Hollande is likely to suffer politically from this bill, which will offend several constituencies whose support he would like to win back, without benefiting from any economic uptick. With such a calculus, one has to assume that he is proceeding with this reform because he believes in it. The question is, Should he?

In this era of austerity and welfare state retrenchment, the willingness to undertake "labor market reform"--which usually means some combination of wage restraint, weakened job protections, and job retraining programs for those laid off--derives equally from a certain kind of economic analysis and a certain kind of political analysis. The economic analysis sees firms in intense competition in a global marketplace where price is the crucial determinant of market share. The political analysis sees social democratic parties as supported by a broad coalition in which workers no longer dominate, so it is politically feasible to adopt measures that appear to weaken the bargaining power of workers provided that one can make the case that the end result will be increased employment and hence greater overall economic prosperity coupled with consumer benefits in the form of lower prices (or at least slower inflation). Social democrats who embrace this analysis like to think of themselves as "modern," that is, prepared to adapt to the world as it is. They stigmatize their opponents for clinging to shopworn nostrums that in the long run will reduce competitiveness and undermine prosperity.

So what is in the El Khomri bill? We find the usual mix of policies with the customary timidity of the Hollande/Valls/Macron era. This is not a Frenchified Hartz IV agreement, nor could it be, since in France there is no trust between employers and unions, as the howls of protest from the unions have already made clear. Wage restraint is to be effected through branch-by-branch accords on the level of supplementary pay for overtime hours (with overtime counted as hours above 35 per week). Firms are to be granted greater flexibility in the apportionment of working hours, with 12-hour days and 60-hour works to be negotiated in "special circumstances." Rules on layoffs are to be relaxed, and severance packages to workers laid off because of a firm's "growth-related strategy" are to be limited.

It would be good to have a detailed analysis of the way in which all these measures are intended to work together to cut unit labor costs and thus increase market and spur growth in specific industries. I doubt that such an analysis exists, and I further doubt that it would be very convincing if it did exist. There is already an extensive literature on France's diminished competitive stature, and it points to many factors other than unit labor costs. Flexibility in employment and scheduling is no doubt an advantage to firms in many industries, but it should be incumbent on firms benefiting from such advantages to demonstrate how they plan to take advantage of them. Given the failure of firms to increase hiring in return for concessions granted to them under a previous round of reforms (notably reduced payroll taxes), it is no wonder that trust is absent. Yet the government, while occasionally protesting that prior lack of response, seems to have few qualms about being taken to the cleaners once again. It is therefore hard to avoid the conclusion that the strategy behind the reform has not been clearly thought through, much less explained to the public at large. The economic rationale is weak, the political rationale weaker. That no one is surprised by this double weakness is a measure of how low expectations of government have fallen in the Hollande era.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Sarkozy Mis en Examen

I spoke too soon the other day. I thought that Copé's escape from the judges meant that Sarkozy, too, would get away with whatever part he had in the affair. But today he was mis en examen. The precise nature of the five counts of the indictment remains unclear at this point. Sarkozy's lawyer is trying to minimize the significance of the move, suggesting that the charges concern mere "technical" violations of campaign financing laws, which Sarkozy has already admitted, rather than a criminal conspiracy. This may be spin, of course. In any case, the effect of this latest development on Sarkozy's campaign for the 2017 presidential nomination remains to be seen. It probably won't help, although one never knows. He may try to explain the charges as yet another instance of judicial vindictiveness against his humble person.

Monday, February 15, 2016

S. S. Sarkozy Takes Two Torpedoes

Nicolas Sarkozy's cruise to another presidential nomination has proved to be anything but. Although he seems to have escaped his worst nightmare--no indictments have been handed down, and it's probably too late for judicial sabotage by les petits pois--opponents are cropping up in every corner of the right. The latest to announce is Jean-François Copé, until last week himself jailbait. But for whatever reason he was not mis en examen in the Bygmalion affair. Since the options for the judges were 1) he was guilty of peculation or 2) he was incredibly negligent in his job as leader of the UMP, it would seem that exoneration hardly qualifies him to be president of France, but ambition, as usual, seems to have gotten the better of reason, and he is running, having already published a comeback book with the very Gaullist title Le Sursaut. Copé's move is not only a consequence of his long-nursed presidential ambitions but also a manifestation of his understandable desire for vengeance. Sarkozy, the chief beneficiary of the Bygmalion manipulations, somehow escaped the subsequent maelstrom, which took Copé out of politics for two years and threatened to end his political career for good. It's payback time.

Copé was never a very popular figure, however, even in his heyday, and Sarkozy never trusted him enough to give him a ministry, so this defection is the least of his concerns. More serious is the defection of former PM Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who still has a base of support among more centrist party militants. Raffarin, no fan of Sarko's, has unsurprisingly thrown his support to Juppé, "une personnalité forte, fiable, et fidèle." These are un-sexy attributes, and the Juppé-Raffarin tandem is probably the least charismatic imaginable, but after un hyperprésident and un président soi-disant normal, France would probably be only too happy to settle for quiet competence.

Thursday, February 11, 2016


The remaniement is one of the more tedious rituals of French government. It reminds me of the singing of the national anthem before American baseball games. One expects it to happen, one expects it to be all but meaningless, and one can't wait until it's over so that the players can get on with the game. Today's remaniement is a classic of the genre. Fabius is out (of his own volition, headed to the Conseil Constitutionnel and the irrelevance of immortality), Ayrault is in. Three--count them, three--ecologists have somehow been persuaded to lend their cover to a government that desperately needs to shore up its left flank. An énarque by the name of Audrey Azoulay replaces Fleur Pellerin at Culture. Who knows what offense Pellerin gave to be punished this way, or what service Azoulay performed to be so rewarded (she is said to be a friend of Julie Gayet, and perhaps that counts as service enough). Nothing changes in the regalian ministries or in the economic portfolios. Jean-Michel Baylet, a faithful old retainer, has been pressed into comforting service in the untranslatable office of aménagement du territoire--after the last major territorial reform has been fully consecrated by the regional elections.

Ho hum. Bottom line: all is well, stay the course, success is just ahead, but let us pay homage to the importance of the environment and kneel in reverence to the good works of Laurent Fabius, tel qu'en lui-même enfin son départ le change, by taking on board some Greens and thus strengthening, perhaps, the president's hand in the coming primary challenge from the left. As General de Gaulle is said to have remarked when France's "victory" in World War II was celebrated with a Te Deum at Notre-Dame, "quelle mascarade!"

Etat d'urgence?

I'm just back from a 10-day stay in France, during which I spoke to dozens of people and spent a fair amount of time nosing around Paris. While I was in the air on the way home, the National Assembly voted yes to a constitutional amendment allow la déchéance de nationalité, as Hollande and Valls apparently succeeded in persuading deputies on their side that preserving Hollande's crumbling authority was paramount, while Sarkozy apparently convinced deputies on his side that ideological consistency was more important than dealing yet another blow to an already damaged presidency.

Among people I spoke to there was a consensus, nevertheless, that the country wants neither Hollande nor Sarkozy for its next president. The problem is how to get there, when both the current and the former president, for all their failings as presidents, remain clever political operatives and in possession of the means to compete in intraparty infighting. Many people who normally vote left seem prepared to vote for Juppé, if only he can find a way to be nominated, but no one seems confident in his skills as a candidate or a primary competitor. Meanwhile, Hollande is sure to be challenged on the left--if not in an open primary of "all the left," as has been proposed in a petition signed by Piketty, Rosanvallon, Cohn-Bendit, and others, then in the primary to which the PS is committed by its own by-laws, in which it is clear that Arnaud Montebourg is prepared to mount a challenge (openly discussed in the most recent Canard enchaînée). We shall see where these initiatives go.

And now there has been a remaniement, with Ayrault returning to the government as foreign minister. Fabius leaves on a high note, having succeeded with the COP21, a laudable initiative that he pursued with passion but that to my mind looks like one of those laudable initiatives that history will remember in the breach rather than the observance (Kellogg-Briand pact, anyone?).

I was impressed, finally, by the Parisian stiff upper lip in the face of last year's terror attacks. The état d'urgence continues, but life seems to have returned to normal. Occasionally one runs into a heavily armed contingent of troops guarding this or that site,  but people aren't looking right and left in the Metro, where the police presence actually struck me as lighter than usual. There are fewer tourists, people say, with a consequent dent in the chiffre d'affaires of hotels and department stores, but the restaurants and cafés are full, there are still lines at all the museums, and Charlie Hebdo is as cheeky as ever (most recently with its Hanouna cover).